Despite the PR tenets that by-the-book crises communication firms advocate, the one aspect of a crisis that most bothered clients was the daily negative news coverage. The cessation of negative press stories was always at the top of clients’ “want” lists. Most other important elements of crisis situations, like potential legal and financial penalties were ceded to attorneys.
How, then, can PR reps minimize the flow of negative stories? My advice is unconventional, but I’ve proven it works better than the orthodox crisis management methodology.
Any honest PR advisor would tell clients that getting the press to stop negative coverage is impossible until the situation is resolved. Even then, the crisis becomes part of the client’s DNA and can be revived as an example during others’ PR crises.
“Look forward” is what I tell clients. Don’t make excuses. Explain why the problem occurred and how you are going to fix it.
Specific Steps to a PR Crisis Response
Specifically, as soon as a PR crisis occurs, here’s what I advise clients:
Call your attorney and explain the situation.
Notify internal PR people about the crisis and tell them the only response to press inquiries until further notice is, ‘We’re checking into the situation and will release additional information when we have specific facts.”
Arrange a meeting or conference call with the corporate attorney and your PR firm to coordinate a strategy.
Appoint a person(s) who will respond to media inquiries.
Have all statements cleared by the attorneys.
Don’t hide from the press.
Never allow the first official statement to say the organization or individual did nothing wrong. The press won’t believe it and future facts may emerge that disprove the statement. Remember the BP, Boeing and many other similar situations where early denial caused later additional problems.
Depending upon the situation, issue a prompt apology.
Once the situation is clear, arrange interviews with beat reporters.
Do not fall to reporter’s ploys when they say, “I’m on deadline and need an immediate response.” Their deadlines are not your problem.
Do not engage in lengthy conversations with the press when they request information. Politely tell reporters that additional information will be posted on the website on a regular basis and that a management spokesperson will be available to answer questions when there is major news to report. In other words, do what you can to control the news flow.
Crisis and Non-Crisis Management Rules for PR Reps
There are also rules that PR people representing a client with a PR crisis should know.
Don’t expect favors from media friends. They have to satisfy their editors with the coverage of the crisis, not satisfy you.
Don’t hide from the media. Respond to all media calls promptly, but remember that responding does not mean you have to accede to the journalist’s request.
During a prolonged PR crisis, updates should be posted on the client’s website on a regular, as needed, basis. Doing so might prevent reporters from digging for information on their own, resulting in stories that might be more negative to the client.
When announcing news favorable to a client, arrange a round table discussion with beat reporters; always include wire service journalists.
Never hold a free-for-all press conference with top management until the situation is resolved.
Always have several pre-planned answers to media questions. Use them as needed.
When dealing with the press, don’t “freelance.” Stick to what has been agreed on and stay on message.
Expect negative press coverage. Don’t take it personally
“No comment” replies should be on your never-do list. There are many ways that you can respond to a question that will give the reporter a quotable quote without divulging specific information.
After every conversation with a reporter or client, write a “call report” and disseminate it to the account team.
Crisis Management Rules for PR Account Managers
Here are some general rules that I advise account handlers to follow. They apply to crisis and noncrisis situations:
Never lie to or mislead a journalist.
Always tape media interviews with a reporter; critique the interview with the client ASAP after the interview or ask a more senior agency individual to do so. Do not arrange other interviews until after the critique.
Transcribe all interviews and disseminate copies to your client contact and all agency and legal personnel involved with the account.
After an interview, always immediately send an email to the reporter emphasizing the key remarks made by the client. Tell the reporter that you are having the interview transcribed and are willing to send a copy to the reporter. This is a good way of preventing a reporter from deliberately taking things out of context. The email should also include important talking points and information that wasn’t covered during the interview.
Prior to an interview, remind the client that anything said is likely to be used in the story; if not now in a follow-up.
Emphasize that just because a client says, “This is off the record” doesn’t mean that the reporter agrees. Never say anything “off the record” even if the reporter agrees.
Just because a reporter turns off a tape recorder or puts away a notebook doesn’t mean the interview is over. Anything you or a client says can be used.
If a reporter makes a comment you or a client disagree with, say so. Keeping quiet may give the impression you agree.
Never answer a question that is not clear. Ask the reporter to clarify.
A TV or print interview without client talking points is worthless; a short interview with client talking points is much preferable to a lengthy interview without them.
Avoid taped broadcast interviews in controversial situations. Editing of taped interviews can intentionally or unintentionally distort the message.
Think for Yourself
Many of the Merlins of our business, known as self-anointed PR crisis specialists, would disagree with my advice. But remember: PR and crisis PR tenets were not handed down from above. They were devised by PR practitioners like you and me, or maybe by people before PR was even invented. Remember, your mother told you not to lie before you ever heard of PR and told you to be careful about what you say.
The best advice I can give to both young and seasoned PR practitioners is not to always take the road most traveled. Take a different route. Think for yourself. Be flexible in your planning because, as I’ve written many times, every PR crisis needs original thinking. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy. The same is true in non-crisis program planning.
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.